Why Michigan football and Jim Harbaugh had no choice but continue their relationship

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

It took longer than most people anticipated.

But Jim Harbaugh and Michigan football are giving this another shot.

Harbaugh officially signed a four-year extension with the Wolverines that could keep him as head coach through 2025, the team announced Friday. He previously had only one year remaining on his original contract.

Harbaugh has finally ended speculation that he would leave Ann Arbor — speculation that had only been fueled in recent weeks and months by the lack of a new deal.

JEFF SEIDEL: Harbaugh is Michigan's version of John Cooper. That is a shame

And despite any consternation from those who point to Harbaugh's record against Ohio State (0-5), his inability to win the Big Ten championship and the Wolverines' 2-4 record in 2020, this was always the logical move for both parties.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines reacts in the second half while playing the Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines reacts in the second half while playing the Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Of course, U-M isn't signing the same Jim Harbaugh that it did in Dec. 2014, when he was arguably the hottest coaching candidate in all of football. There's a reason his new deal lowers his base salary by roughly 50% to $4 million this year (escalating to $4.4 million by 2025), with incentives allowing for him to recoup most of what was lost.

"There is work to be done and challenges to be addressed," Harbaugh said in a statement released Friday. "These challenges are being addressed as we continue to strive for excellence in the classroom and championships on the field, a message that I hope is noted in the language of our agreed-upon contract."

But Harbaugh is still objectively a good football coach. He is 49-22 at Michigan, a .690 winning percentage. Some may have forgotten the depths to which the program had sunk in 2014, the last year of Brady Hoke's tenure; upon his arrival, Harbaugh immediately resuscitated the program. According to Bill Connelly's SP+ rankings, Michigan has four top-10 finishes in six seasons under Harbaugh.

[ Ohio State football Twitter account 'likes' Harbaugh extension ]

While he has yet to lead the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh has at least positioned Michigan as one of the teams in the next-highest tier.

"I continue to believe that Jim is the right man to lead our program in pursuit of Big Ten and CFP championships," Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said in the release. "Our program didn't achieve at a level that anyone expected this year, but I know those setbacks will drive the coaches, players and staff moving forward."

Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh walks off the field after losing to Michigan State, 27-24, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.
Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh walks off the field after losing to Michigan State, 27-24, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

There's even a reasonable explanation for the woeful 2020, as the Wolverines lost their top receiver and cornerback to opt-outs, saw numerous stars go down with injuries and had to replace over a dozen starters on both sides of the ball without the benefit of spring practices.

[ Why Michigan is smart for extending Jim Harbaugh's contract ]

Simply put, it would've been difficult for U-M to find a coach this offseason as qualified, or more so, as Harbaugh.

At the same time, Michigan is trending the wrong direction under Harbaugh, with a 11-8 record over the past two seasons. It's likely a big reason why Harbaugh is making significantly less annually and is starting that pay cut on Monday instead of 2022.

This is both an opportunity for Harbaugh to rebuild his value and restore his much-beloved alma mater.

At the same time, this is a seemingly friendly deal for the Wolverines during a time of financial crisis.

Harbaugh was the fourth-highest paid coach in the nation in 2020, according to the annual USA Today coaches' salary database. HIs new $4 million base salary this year would make him the eighth-highest paid coach in the Big Ten, based on this year's figures.

Even if Harbaugh achieved all of his incentives, he would make less than he was scheduled to make in 2020 (he, along with other members of the athletic department, accepted a pay cut as the school dealt with the financial backlash of the COVID-19 pandemic).

While other details are unknown, like how much money Michigan has allotted for the rest of Harbaugh's coaching staff, the Wolverines are in position to save money. That could come in handy during the pandemic, which was previously estimated by Manuel to have cost the department roughly $80 million in revenue while also forcing the department to slash 21 jobs this past fall.

Now, Michigan is paying Harbaugh a salary more commensurate with his previous six years in Ann Arbor. And the Wolverines also negotiated a much lower buyout figure, so in the scenario that this reboot fails, their exit strategy should be less costly than it was before. It would cost them just $4 million to buy out Harbaugh in Year 1, with that number decreasing by $1 million with each following year.

If Michigan had moved on from Harbaugh this offseason, it would've also faced the possibility of paying the buyout for whichever coach it chose as the replacement in addition to paying the salaries of a new staff — a less tenable proposition during these cash-strapped times.

Maybe that's where all of this is still headed: A break-up between Harbaugh and Michigan. Maybe this deal only kicks the can down the road. But Harbaugh and the Wolverines don't lose much by giving this partnership another chance.

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football-Jim Harbaugh extension: Neither had any other choice